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Every so often, something turns up on some branch of the family tree which calls for a google search. Census listings and vital statistics records just don't do the story justice. Slacker speed-fiend Grover Cleveland Bergdoll is one of those cases. His story can be told largely with newspaper headlines. In his day, he was almost as notorious as the Lindbergh kidnapper or Bonnie & Clyde. A wee bit of background:

Ludwig Bergdoll (1825-1894) is a fine example of an immigrant success story. His grandson Grover, on the receiving end of abundant inherited wealth, had little to recommend him.

Ludwig, who changed his name to Louis in the U.S., had modest beginnings. His father, a blacksmith, died when he was eight. A few years later, he went to nearby Heidelberg to learn the brewer's trade. He and a sister came to Philadelphia in 1846. After working in several breweries, he founded his own. He was a pioneer in selling beer in individual bottles, and for a time, Bergdoll beer was a major brand nationally, being sold widely in taverns. When he died in 1894, he left an estate worth $4-5 million, a shitload of money back then.

His wife died later the same year and his son, who inherited the business' management, followed just two years later. Louis Jr's widow, Emma, was born in Germany and had been in the U.S. about 11 years when she was left a rich 35-year-old widow with 5 children. She had started as a servant in the Bergdoll household, and a decade later was in command of a significant fortune and a variety of businesses and real estate holdings.

That's the background. Follow below the fold for the tale of a spectacular ne'er-do-well wastrel, who spent much of his life in the headlines, all of it being bad news.



I guess this letter shouldn't be much of a surprise:

Mr. Grover C.A. Bergdoll, Philadelphia

Dear Sir:
    I am returning herein your application for a 1917 automobile license, together with check in the sum of ten dollars to pay for same, as the Department does not deem it advisable to issue you a license.

Yours very truly, F.B. Black, State Highway Commissioner

Some rich guys, finding themselves in such a quandary, might have hired themselves a driver. Bergdoll?  Not so much.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

The mayor of Atlantic City was not pleased when he landed on the beach, warning him not to do it again.


He had a close call, avoiding landing on a high school. Did that make him more careful?  Of course not. It didn't stop him from buzzing a horse race. A horse race?!?!


Meanwhile, back on the ground, he had a rather spectacular crash during a race, where he got tangled up in barbed wire that tore up his face. And other crashes, too.


It should have been obvious enough why he kept getting in trouble with the law without entering law school.  At any rate, he didn't last long there.

Then, things changed. War broke out in Europe. Talk about a buzz kill. Grover didn't like it when the army wouldn't take him as a flight instructor for WWI, so he flew the coop. This was what he was best known for.

This is the house he called home before he fled, offered up for sale spring 2011.

The beer-brewing business thrived in late-19th-century Philadelphia, and no family had more of hand in that success than the Bergdolls, who developed the process of cold-brewing. The German emigres built this detached brownstone in the then-ritzy neighborhood of Fairmount, and one scion, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, dodged the draft for WWI by hiding out amid this opulence. Over the years, the 14,000-square-foot mansion was split up into apartments, but with the recent gentrification of the neighborhood, the sellers are hoping to cash in on a conversion back to single-family living, with some modern improvements. The house features extensive gardens, parking for eight cars, exceptional original details, and eight bedrooms; plus, it's just a short walk to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Still, has it been tainted too much by cowardice to command a $7M price?

His mother, mentioned briefly above, was something else herself.  Grover had sneaked back into the country for Christmas, and was apprehended hiding in a spider hole window seat, after Emma had an armed standoff with the cops. He was sentenced to 5 years in jail in a military court martial.

Incredibly, a few months later, he was let out of jail to retrieve what he claimed was a secret cache of buried gold. Instead, he escaped in his own car while supposedly answering the phone at his mother's house. Keystone cops or what? And he was off to Germany, via Canada.

With Grover underground, the heat fell on Emma, who naively worsened her situation by offering to buy her son an exemption from the draft as [President] Cleveland had bought his. Naturally, draft officials reported this bribery attempt—and the thick German accent in which it was made. Arrested and charged with helping Grover escape, Emma was finally released with a $200 fine.
She got off light with no jail time. That fine was spare change for her. And with her son nowhere to be found, the papparazzi of the day had to content themselves with following his mother around.

New York Times, reporting on the verdict:

Newspapermen sought Mrs. Bergdoll for a statement. "No statement, " Mrs. Bergdoll exclaimed. "No statement," she repeated as she swung a satchel in one hand and the green parasol in the other, both menacingly.
And then there were the bounty hunters, one of whom he shot dead:
Grover’s troubles weren’t over. In 1921, his car was surrounded by six men wielding guns. Two U.S. soldiers and four hired Germans planned to carry him to U.S.-occupied territory. But Grover pushed away the man at the window and his driver floored it in a hail of bullets. One shot wounded a woman in the backseat. Though arrested and convicted, the would-be kidnappers were released after pressure from Washington.

Next, Corliss Griffis and several hired men jumped Grover in his room. But Grover, who carried a gun, killed one assailant in the struggle. The rest were arrested and convicted, then pardoned after 2 million Americans signed petitions for their release. In New York, Griffis was welcomed with ticker tape.

Meanwhile, his replacement in the draft was killed in France:

And that's not all.

Time Magazine, April 22, 1926: Some hundreds of curious-minded peasants streamed into the little town of Mosbach last week to attend the trial of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, famed Philadelphia draft dodger, who was arrested (TIME, Feb. 22) on a charge of having seduced, three years ago, Fraulein Leisel Schmidt, Heidelberg schoolgirl, then 14.
He was about 30 at the time of his assignation with the schoolgirl.

His mother continued to make efforts to get her son out of his troubles.  I'm not sure she actually helped his case much.  The Bergdolls hadn't had much luck with the Republicans, so Emma went on a new campaign when FDR was elected.  After a letter to the President-elect failed, she wrote to soon-to-be First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Emma Bergdoll did not think much of what's called the "special relationship" with Britain these days.

The record of the court martial clearly proves (by the Government’s own witness, the Adjutant General of the State of Penna) that the court martial had no legal jurisdiction over the case and that Grover, if he was to be tried at all, could only be tried before a Federal Court by a jury of his peers, as is provided for by the Constitution.  You know that a civilian (especially a pacifist) being tried by soldiers has about as much chance of being acquitted as Christ had in his trial before the Jewish High-Priests!
As an illustration that public sentiment (on the whole) is not against “slackers” and “draft Evaders” I cite the case of former president Grover Cleveland.  He campaigned three times for the presidency of the U.S. and in each case he got the majority of the popular vote although in one election he lost out through the vote in the Electoral College.  And he got all those votes in spite of the fact that he was a “slacker” during the Civil War (where the unity of the nation was at stake).  He paid $600 to hire a substitute to do his fighting for him.  The fact that the Draft Law of that time permitted him to hire a substitute does not relieve him of the moral end of it.  This fact was used by the Republican party, in Cleveland’s first campaign especially, and was cried from the house-tops all about the nation; but the people did not pay any attention to it at all.  And it would be the same in the event that your noble husband granted my son a pardon and restored him to me.  In fact, now that all the world is talking of doing away with and outlawing war, the pardoning of a man who long ago opposed war would show the good faith of the American Government.

So our speed-fiend slacker was inspired by his namesake, a former President who bought his way out of the military draft.  Despite all that had come before, the Bergdolls didn't seem to have a clue why the public had no patience with them.  It is worth noting that two of Emma's sons, Charles & Louis, changed their names (to Charles Braun and Louis Bergson)  in a effort to escape the notoriety associated with their headline-grabbing mother and brother.

Ultimately, Grover returned to the U.S. in 1939, after Congress passed a bill, unanimously, that would strip him of his citizenship, leaving him stuck in Nazi Germany and eligible for the military draft there.  Despite having successfully slipped into the country on multiple previous occasions, this time he never made it to shore, being apprehended while still on board ship.  He spent several years in federal prison.  Once released in 1946, he got most of the assets the feds had been holding returned to him, so he didn't have to try and find someone who would hire him.  His mother did not live to see him out of prison.  His wife, whom he married while an exile in Germany, divorced him in 1960.  He died at Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital in Richmond, VA in 1966.

It's hard to imagine a more suitable poster boy for the virtues of a nice, hefty inheritance tax.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:02 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.


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